Posted in Travel

Honolulu, Hawaii – 5 things to do

In September last year, Mum and I visited Oahu, Hawaii. I was at work for the first couple of days, but afterwards we took a few days to explore the island. Here are five things to do in Honolulu in three days.

Waikiki Beach

We were staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort which is in prime position, right on the beach. On Friday evening we caught the Hilton’s regular start-the-weekend fireworks display.

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Hilton Hawaiian Village

The Beach

This is the main point of Waikiki. During the week we spent plenty of time walking along the beach. We also swam and snorkeled a bit but didn’t see very much.

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Waikiki beach, right outside the Hilton
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Waikiki Beach, early morning
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Waikiki, looking towards Diamond Head

Food

Another important thing to do in Waikiki is get food from a food truck. Gilligan’s Beach Shack food truck was near to the hotel and we partook of lunch and dinner there on different days. I can report that the coconut shrimp, and fish and chips, were excellent.

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Coconut Shrimp from Gilligan’s Beach Shack
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Red-crested cardinal

Sunset

Sunset viewing is a must in Waikiki. With the sun setting over the water, there’s a good chance you will see a green flash – as we did one night.

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Sunset over the Hilton’s lagoon
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Near the Hilton

Drink

Another activity for sunset is a cocktail at the Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar. This is a grand old hotel, open and breezy in the way tropical hotels usually are. There is a patio overlooking the beach where we enjoyed Mai Tais (of course). They were very strong!

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Mai Tai heaven
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Royal Hawaiian

Hula dancers

There are a lot of random places in Waikiki where Hula dancers perform – outside shops, at the airport, and at hotels. You won’t have to go far for a free display.

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Hula dancers in Waikiki

Diamond Head

Diamond Head is one of the key landmarks of Honolulu. After I finished work on Saturday afternoon, Mum and I made an attempt to hike the summit. For some reason the traffic in Honolulu that evening was appalling. Leaving the hotel at about 4pm, it took us over an hour for a journey that should’ve taken 25 minutes. When we finally arrived at the Diamond Head entrance there was a big sign saying “Do not start walking after 4:30pm” and of course we were too late. Not willing to risk it, we decided to come back the next day.

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Since it had taken such an effort to get there, we walked around to the Diamond Head lookout. The walk was very nice and the views were spectacular, but it was a slight ordeal getting home (lack of cell reception/irregular buses/getting dark).

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Walking round to Diamond Head lookout
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Diamond Head Lookout

The next day, Sunday, we decided to tackle Diamond Head again – we were on the 8am bus for a very quick ride and a smooth walk to the base. It wasn’t too hot though it was already quite busy. The hike was challenging but not impossible, although the “99 steps” gave us a run for our money. The views at the top was breathtaking and well worth it.

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View of Honolulu from Diamond Head summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Downtown Honolulu

After our successful Diamond Head re-do, that afternoon we caught another bus into Historic downtown Honolulu. We followed the “The Capitol District” tour in the app GPS My City. Because it was Sunday, it was very quiet, but it gave us a chance to look at different landmarks in relative peace.

We started at the Iolani Palace, and on our tour we saw the Aliiolani Hale and the King Kamehameha statue, and the Hawaii State Capitol building among other places. The guide was quite informative – for example, we learned that the State Capitol was designed to “evoke Hawaii and its natural features” including representations of the ocean, volcanoes, coconut trees, the primary islands, the sun and the moon. The building lacks the usual central dome/rotunda of other state capitol buildings: instead this area is left open to the sky.

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King Kamehameha statue
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Iolani Palace

Island Tour

A popular activity on Oahu is an Island Tour. We chose Hawaii Turtle Tours because of their options to go snorkeling and see turtles.

We met out guide, Brock, at 7:30am. We picked up a few other people until there were about 20 of us on the bus. The day was pretty much non-stop:

  1. Diamond Head Lookout (been there!)
  2. Halona Blowhole – we waited patiently for the right wave to see the awesome blowhole (see video below)
  3. Makapuu Lookout
  4. Tropical Farm – a macadamia nut farm where there was free coffee.
  5. The windward coastline to Kualoa Beach Park and Chinaman’s Hat.
  6. Sunset Beach. The surf wasn’t that impressive that day, but we did get rained on.
  7. Tsue Farm for a delicious lunch.
  8. A nearby beach for swimming with turtles. We started by walking on the beach and soon came across a turtle just hanging out on the sand. Our guide told us to not get within 5ft of it but lots of people from other buses were taking selfies right next to it. I did get in the water for a while but it was too rough and cloudy to see anything. From the shore I did see a turtle in the water, and others swam out with it.
  9. The Dole Plantation, a must-see for all tour buses on the island. We got a Pineapple Whip and a Pineapple smoothie and had a look around the pineapple-themed gift shop.
  10. We arrived back in Waikiki by about 4pm.

Overall the tour was a great experience – our guide was very good and we felt like we saw all the highlights of the island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Harbor Memorial

On our last day in Honolulu we went to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, aka the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

My knowledge of this event that brought the U.S. into the Second World War was minimal prior to our visit. The museum took us through what the island was like before the event, how the war shaped it, the actual day, and what happened after. It was extremely well done, and very easy to engage with at a simple or detailed level, depending on what you were interested in.

The final part of the experience is a boat ride to the memorial which sits over the USS Arizona. To go on this, you have to reserve a timed ticket but unfortunately on our visit this part of the memorial was closed due to repairs. We still went on a boat which circled nearby and we listened to an explanation from the boat’s captain.

I highly recommend this museum to visit, even if you’re not into war history.

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USS Arizona Memorial

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It’s hard to leave such a beautiful place!

 

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Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Flying a falcon and a hawk: Sky Falconry experience

This weekend we traveled south to Alpine, California, in the San Diego Mountains, for an afternoon flying birds of prey. We purchased a private raptor experience through Sky Falconry, apparently one of the few places in the U.S. licensed for such an activity. We were here to learn all we could about birds of prey and get to experience flying a falcon and a hawk.

After an extremely bumpy ride on the dirt road to their property, we met Kirk and Denise and they soon brought out three birds – a Lanner Falcon and two Harris’s Hawks.

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Two Harris’s Hawks and a Lanner Falcon

The Lanner Falcon was a juvenile male, just under two years old, and weighed 0.5kg. His name was Ali Baba. The larger Harris’s Hawk was a female, weighing 1kg, and the smaller male weighed 0.75kg. The female’s name was Steam.

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Lanner Falcon – Ali Baba
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Harris’s Hawk – Steam

To begin, we received an excellent lesson in all things falconry, learning that falconry as a hunting technique is over 10,000 years old, that these birds’ vision is excellent – Kirk and Denise used the charming analogy that these birds have such good eyesight that they could read a book three miles away – but that their bird brains mean that if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind. We also learned that their powerful talons have ratcheting tendons to grip with 200kg of strength – compared to a human male’s puny 40kg – and that the birds can only be trained with positive reinforcement: they will trade you something but won’t give it up otherwise.

Our first exercise was to learn how to use the leather glove that is very necessary when you want one of these birds to fly to your hand. Then the first flight with Ali Baba began.

Since the Lanner is not native to the U.S. it needs a GPS tracker when in free flight. Once the bird was kitted out with this tracker, a piece of meat (quail) was put on J’s glove and the Ali Baba flew to it. Denise snapped a bunch of photos with my camera but very quickly the falcon was off, over the trees and down the canyon.

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With Ali Baba. See the blue GPS backpack he wears
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Ali Baba takes off – seen again 20 minutes later!

Mild panic set in as Denise explained that a previous time Ali Baba did this, it took them half a day to find and retrieve him. We watched his path tracked by GPS on the phone and we saw he was very quickly several miles away. Kirk said he was looking for thermals so he could rise, and after about 15 minutes he apparently found one. Ever so slowly he started heading back towards us (the bird has no homing instinct) and eventually was high enough that he could see us.

We scanned the sky and thought we spotted him, but it turned out we’d actually seen a Red Tailed Hawk. We finally spotted Ali Baba a few moments later: he was about 100 ft above the hawk, preparing to attack. He quickly went into a screaming dive towards the hawk before breaking off (perhaps realizing how much bigger it was than he) and heading our way. Kirk was swinging the lure around in a fast arc and shouting “Ho! Ho! Ho!” (the bird signal for “big food”) and Ali Baba came racing into us – doing a flyby and experimental grab of the lure before zooming off, banking and coming back. He grabbed the lure and Kirk and Denise were able to bribe him with some food to get it from him.

We saw on the GPS track that in 23 minutes he had traveled nearly 7 miles and his top speed was 75 mph!

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Ali Baba banking for arrival
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Snatches the lure
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Ali Baba
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Ali Baba’s flight – note the “coring” in the air thermals

Meanwhile the two other Hawks, in their boxes, were going crazy with the excitement because they could hear the call for big food. When Kirk got out the female Harris’s it was making a noise that sounded like an impression of a dragon – a throaty deep hiss/growl. Eventually she calmed down and we were able fly her.

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Steam preparing for flight

Steam was very heavy when she was sitting on my arm at full stretch, but extremely beautiful close up. We learned more about how they fly. They are the masters of minimum effort – when they fly to a target their eyes are locked on, and they stay close the ground (less than a wingspan) for less turbulence and smoother flight. When they come to land, they fly up to your hand in a flared posture as a braking maneuver. It was fantastic to see Steam do this, as well as to fly through narrow gaps in the trees and to be so agile as to catch something out of the air.

When it came time for our experience to end, we flew Steam to the lure which she grabbed skillfully. This was our lesson in how a bird “mantles” – i.e. hides its food. Steam was doing this beautifully, and again, a tasty snack was deployed to retrieve the lure from her.

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Steam – caught the lure and mantling
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Not interested in alternative food source!
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Attempting both options
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Reward for giving up lure

In our two hours or so with Kirk and Denise we learned so much – they are excellent teachers. We had an absolutely fantastic experience with Sky Falconry and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in birds of prey.

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Posted in Travel

Free things to do in Washington DC

In August 2017 I had a work trip to Washington DC, spending three days at a conference. Luckily I had the evenings off, so each day at 4:30pm I left the conference hall and headed straight onto the train into town. Here’s what I got up to – all things were free!

The White House

On the first afternoon, before the conference started, I had an excuse to go into town and meet with a colleague for lunch. We dined at the Iron Gate Restaurant and I had soft-shelled crab for the first time in my life. Walking up to the restaurant from McPherson Square Station, I was interested to see that the architecture was a lot like I remembered in Boston.

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Washington DC
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Soft-shelled crab

After lunch, I detoured past The White House. The building seemed very small in real life, and for some reason I didn’t take any pictures.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Mall

After the first day of the conference I headed to Georgetown, otherwise known as the student district. From Foggy Bottom-GWU station I walked to the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was vast – much bigger than I imagined. I climbed the many steps to the top to admire the Lincoln statue and found it packed with people taking selfies.

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Lincoln Memorial
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Inside the Lincoln Memorial
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View over the Mall

Then I walked alongside the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. On my flight into National (DCA) we flew right past this monument – from my window seat it looked like we could reach out and touch it. Near the Monument was the National World War II Memorial which was quite beautiful and touching. Like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument was much bigger in real life.

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Lincoln Memorial
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Reflecting Pool
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World War II memorial
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At the Washington Monument
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Capitol Building
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Sunset and the Washington Monument

Even though it was nearly sunset, I kept walking along the mall. On the lawns there were hundreds of people playing what I would describe as football rounders (I’m sure it’s called something else). It looked like fun! I walked past the Smithsonian Castle and the Smithsonian museums and took pictures of the sunset. At this point I was close to the Capitol Building and was tempted to make my way there, but my feet were seriously sore at this point and I didn’t really want to be out after dark, so I called it a night and got back on the Yellow line to the hotel.

Arlington National Cemetery

I went to Arlington Cemetery the following evening. It was only a short walk from the train station and was free to enter. I got there about 45 minutes before closing, but figured that was enough time to get the idea. I followed the walking path around to see  JFK’s grave and memorial, and the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then I walked out past the thousands of tombstones. It was a sobering place.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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Arlington Cemetery

National Air and Space Museum

On the last day, a Saturday, the conference ended at lunch time, so once I’d packed up, it was back to the train station – this time to see the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I got there at about 2pm and the line was out the door and along the street. Since the museum is free to enter, this line was just for security. Once I figured out I could go in the “no bags” line, I was in fairly quickly. Again, I didn’t have much time here as my flight back to LA was later that evening, so I did an extremely cursory look around. Hubble Space Telescope model: check, Wright Brothers plane: check (wait, didn’t I see that at the Pima Air Museum as well?), Apollo lander: check.

The museum was absolutely packed and there was almost no room to move in some parts. I don’t think I would have liked to have spent much longer in there on such a busy day. However, it was an impressive museum, and I’d like to spend more time there one day.

 

There are so many great things to do in Washington DC, and it’s very easy to get around. I hope to come back one day to do it properly!

Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Paso Robles, Morro Bay and Hearst Castle – California Road Trip

Back in late August 2017 mum came to visit us in Los Angeles. As part of her visit we went on a mini road trip to California Wine Country, Morro Bay and a famous tourist spot: Hearst Castle.

Being August the temperature was in the 40C’s (100F) and bush fires were burning around LA. We set out in my car from Pasadena on Saturday afternoon and drove up the I-5 before heading cross country to Paso Robles – a town of many wineries. According to the car, the outside temperature on arrival was 46C/115F.

We headed to Le Vigne Winery which had been recommended to us. Glad for the extra-strong aircon inside the tasting room, we shared a simple tasting with a paired cheese (the “cheese flight”). The wine was fairly average, and the experience of standing up at the bar in a very noisy room was not great. Overall it was not a very interesting experience (for example, compared to a good experience at Pfeiffer Winery, Rutherglen, Australia), so we left fairly quickly and headed to our accommodation – Americas Best Value Inn in Atascadero, which was also not very interesting but was the only place for miles around that had any vacancies. Actually, the interesting thing about the Inn was that the guy behind the reception was so unbelievably rude that it amazed me the place was still in business.

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Le Vigne Winery
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The Cheese Fridge at Le Vigne Winery

Since Atascadero had a lake, we headed there for a walk before dinner. The lake was beautiful and the temperature had dropped to manageable levels. There were a few people jogging, and others strolling around. Back at the carpark we paused at the little zoo which had flamingos in an outside enclosure.

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Atascadero lake
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Flamingos – yes, they are real!

We had fish and chips for dinner at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. Afterwards we got beer from the local Trader Joe’s then headed back to the hotel for the night.

The next morning, Sunday, we drove towards San Simeon and Hearst Castle. The coast road was very scenic and strangely quite empty. We stopped off in Cambria to get closer to the water. Scrambling down a small cliff with limited stairs we found a rocky beach which was actually more rocks than beach. After looking at the water for a while we headed on to Hearst Castle.

We arrived at the visitor center at the base of the hill at opening time. Like pros we went straight to the gift shop to get postcards – something which is pretty close to impossible to find in Pasadena ­– then got coffee.

As we had prepaid our tour tickets online via the California State Parks Reservation System we thought we were all set, but little did we know that those tickets are useless without also going to, yes, the ticket counter, to get them exchanged for…tickets. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d known when we arrived and the line was non-existent. However, by the time we found this strange fact out the ticket line was literally out the door: 100 people long. Luckily once we had stood in the line for about 20 minutes we were good to go.

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Hearst Castle, as seen from the visitor center

We boarded the bus which drove us up the steep and winding road to the villa on top of the hill. On arrival we were greeted at a wide set of steps by a number of volunteers, all pleased to see us. Just for a second it was easy to imagine arriving as a VIP.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the villa, and she took our group on the “upstairs suites” tour. William Hearst Sr. apparently loved to entertain guests at the villa, and had differently designed bedrooms for guests. We were amazed by the amount of European art and sculpture in each room. We also saw the spectacular dining room and library.

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Living Room
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Guest bedroom
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Another guest bedroom
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Library
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Dining Room
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View to the Pacific Ocean from inside the Villa

After the tour we were able to wander around the grounds. We enjoyed the piazza and the wonderful views before heading to the last stop which was the swimming pool, tiled in azure blue and gold leaf mosaic tiles. It looked so inviting it was hard not to jump in.

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Pond
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Guest suite?
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Piazza
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Hearst Castle swimming pool
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Hearst Castle swimming pool
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Hearst Castle swimming pool

That afternoon we drove to Morro Bay and arrived at our accommodation (Morro Crest Inn) to discover it did not have aircon. Luckily it was only 100F at that point so we had a cup of tea then went for a walk along the bay to look for birds and other wildlife.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron
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Seal
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Osprey

Along with various sea birds, sea otters and seals we saw a pretty spectacular sunset. We had dinner at Blue Sky Bistro and enjoyed the evening’s cooler temperatures.

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Sunset and Morro Rock
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Dinner – clam chowder

The next morning, we had breakfast at the same place then after checkout drove along the bay to spot the local sea lions. These are extremely noisy creatures and we found a big group of them sitting on a yellow contraption in the middle of the bay, honking at each other. At Morro Rock we saw a great group of sea otters, and upon walking around the Rock we saw some interesting birds and lizards.

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Sealions
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More sea lions
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Western Fence Lizard
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White-crowned Sparrow
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Black Phoebe
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California Ground Squirrel
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Sea Otters

 

After this we set our sights for Pasadena, heading along Highway 1 as much as possible. We stopped at Solvang on the way and found it to be a very touristy experience. We sampled the famous aebleskivers and were underwhelmed!

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Solvang

This was quite a low-key road trip as in total we drove about 550 miles in three days. I would like go back to Morro Bay to explore the area more, and I think Hearst Castle is an interesting place for out-of-town tourists – but I wouldn’t go out of my way for Paso Robles!

Posted in Travel

Winter in London

After Geneva and a lovely Christmas at home with the family, J and I got the bus to London for a few days before our flight home to Los Angeles. As with everything London, even the experience getting there was an experience. The bus driver decided to go a different route to normal and we ended up getting stuck in rugby-match-day traffic around Twickenham. Eventually we arrived at Victoria Bus Station, only an hour late, and we decided to act like tourists and get a Black Cab to our hotel, the Marriott off Oxford Street. This proved to be an efficient but expensive way to travel.

Obviously the Marriott is a very expensive hotel but thanks to our rewards credit card we were able to stay there for 4 nights, in a club room, for free. So we checked in, dropped our gear in the small room, and headed down to the club for free appetizers and wine. On the way down we seemed to be constantly getting out of the way of beautiful people and their entourage laden with bags from Primark.

The next day we headed over to Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea. When we are in London we make a point of trying afternoon tea at a different establishment, preferably the place voted best by the British Tea Society. Our first ever time was at Claridge’s in 2006 and that still remains the pinnacle of our experience. At Brown’s we scored a table right in front of the fireplace and over the next couple of hours stuffed ourselves with delicious scones, sandwiches and sweets, washed down with some convoluted but delicious tea. It was an excellent experience and to be recommended.

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Later that day we met up with my best friend from Australia who happened to be living in London at the time. Chantal brought along her two-year-old and we all walked over to the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. On the way we spotted a Bugatti Veyron, a 1-million-pound car, parked in a dark corner with discreet body(car) guards nearby.

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Bugatti Veyron

The Winter Wonderland is basically a fun fair, with carnival type games and activities and some loud flashy rides. Because we had the two-year-old with us, our choices of activities were determined by her, but she seemed to have a good time.

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Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

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Later we took the Tube back to Hackney, where they live, and husband Damo picked us up and drove us back to their council flat, which is now worth about 5 billion pounds in this gentrified hipster suburb. We partook of some adult beverages and opened some Christmas presents and generally passed a pleasant evening.

The next day we had arranged to meet up again, this time at The Shard. Because it was a nice day (i.e. not raining), we decided to head there on foot. After breakfast at the hotel we set out to leisurely take in the sights on the way. We saw part of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, we crossed the Thames by the London Eye and walked along to Borough Market before arriving at the Shard.

London-walk

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People waiting to see the Changing of the Guard
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Whitehall

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We arrived at the Shard and went up in the elevator to the 35th floor. We were booked in for a late lunch at TĪNG, and we were seated on a kind of sofa-table situation – no luck on getting by the window, and had a rather expensive lunch but an excellent chat. We also got the opportunity to check out the view from the same floor. (Top tip if you are cheap: skip lunch and just go to this floor for a look!).

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The Shard
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View from Ting
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Lunch
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Lunch
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Sunset view
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Night lights of London

By the time we were done it was dark, so we took the Tube back to the hotel and collapsed in a heap.

The next day, our last in London, we decided to go out for a full English breakfast. Unfortunately, our chosen location was shut so we had to switch to plan B, which was a Lebanese place – Comptoir Libanais. Breakfast was spicy but delicious.

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Comptoir Libanais

Then, with J ready for some downtime, and me incapable of such a thing, I set off solo for a 5 hour random walk around London with my camera.

According to my Garmin I did 22,000 steps which is about 10 miles. I started walking east-ish down Oxford Street and after a while ended up near the British Museum. I stopped at a café nearby for a ploughman’s sandwich, then continued around to Regents Street then Piccadilly Circus. Then I decided to go to Harrods, so I wandered over and by the time I got there it was dark (4pm). It was absolutely packed inside, to the point where you could hardly make progress, so I quickly gave up and came back outside and spent some time being amused at the ridiculous traffic jam and the two Lamborghinis stuck in it.

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Regent Street
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Regent Street
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Picadilly Circus
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Walking to Harrods
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Harrods

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Then I headed back towards the hotel. I decided to go through Hyde Park because it would be more interesting, even though it was dark. It was also foggy which was excellent and made it very atmospheric. I could see the Winter Wonderland looming in the distance so I knew roughly which way to go. I exited the park at Marble Arch and went across the road to the McDonald’s to pick up dinner (a tradition of ours is to make sure we bring back McDonald’s to any 5-star hotel we stay at). The queue was immense but I got our food eventually. Then I headed back down Oxford Street to the hotel.

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Hyde Park

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Oxford Street

London is a great city to walk in, especially if you want to explore. Around every corner is something interesting or famous, and there’s always a Tube station nearby if you really get stuck. We thoroughly enjoyed these few days in London, even though it was freezing cold. The spirit of Christmas was still in the air which made it extra special. We will definitely be back.